40 years Ago Today: The Conversation (film review)
In 1970, Karel Kachyna made a Czech film titled The Ear, and in 1974 Francis Ford Coppola made an American film titled The Conversation. Due to the highly restrictive Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia, The Ear was banned before it saw the light of day (frankly it’s a miracle it was ever made) and did not make it to a cinema until 1989. By that time The Conversation had been and gone for quite a while. And yet the similarities in the two films are remarkable, one being about the art of spying on others (and the paranoia that creates) and the other about living with the threat of being watched (and the paranoia that creates) and fascinatingly, both contain important toilet flushing scenes and the return of something hidden at the most inopportune moment. Politically, Karel Kachyna made a film depicting the paranoia inflicted from the Soviet rule over Czechoslovakia, while Coppola’s film adumbrates the immediate post-Watergate scandal and the ruins of the Vietnam war effort. One film depicts Russian government oppression, the other an indistinguishable oppression wrought by the recording of each other (government, organisation or otherwise). The paranoia experienced in each film by the protagonists is identical, pointing to Nietzsche’s claim that morality and memory are tools of the weak to oppress the strong with guilt and fear.
There is almost no chance that Coppola saw The Ear before he made The Conversation, and while Kachyna did model the paranoid relationship of Ludvik and Anna partly on the 1966 Nichols adaptation of Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf, The Conversation was made after The Ear. The perfectly paralleled paranoia of each film, so meticulously mirrored, is the depiction of two directors working under opposing political regimes. If the government doesn’t watch you, your neighbor will on their behalf, is the message when the two films are combined, and every government no matter how different they claim to be, control a populace dominated by post industrial and post enlightenment fear, alienation and guilt. In both films the target of surveillance is the bourgeoisie, while those who perform surveillance are the working class, Marx’s peasant foot soldiers recruited to protect the interests of the wealthy elite, examining the middle class who are the keepers of the morality that controls everyone.
Harry Caul (a brilliant Gene Hackman) is the typical capitalist worker bee identified by Marx in his estranged Labour paper. He is disassociated from his work, capital being a just and singular reward, and he needs to ask no questions and just perform tasks as they are assigned. And yet, he feels accountable for his work being used in a murder years earlier, and lives in a guilt that society both imposes and refuses. Is Harry complicit? Then he can’t disassociate from his work, something we all need to be able to do when we are assigned tasks by employers. Harry is heralded as a genius of surveillance by his working class peers, and yet despite his multiple locks and alarm system his clumsy landlord can break into his apartment and leave a present, a woman at a party can steal his work, his girlfriend knows when he’s coming in by his pretensions of secrecy and regularly sees him spying on her and his peer can plant a recording device on him and expose his vulnerabilities. Despite his pride and accolades, he can’t do his work properly, because Marx would say, it has been stolen from him, and used against him. But like a good capitalist worker bee, Harry meets these questions with self blame, paranoia and self-abuse, moving more into an alienated state, and further from lucidity.
Harry bugs phones and his surname is Caul, phonetically pronounced “call”. In a nightmare we find that Harry nearly drowned in his bath as a child: A Caul is a word with two meanings, a spider’s web and the thin membrane that sits over a babies face that prevents them from drowning in amniotic fluid. Harry’s protection from the world is a paper-thin fold away raincoat he wears that looks like it will catch and tear on something immediately – it’s a raincoat that looks like rain could tear it apart. He has no defenses, not even his talent, he has no relationships because of his paranoia, and he has swelling all-consuming guilt contained in a grotesque memory that distorts with time. Who is Harry? Harry is no one.
Part of what makes The Conversation such an amaranthine and brilliant thriller, is the timelessness of the films central directive. Particularly noteworthy is Harry’s powerlessness in the face of incomplete information (peculiar when his task is to spy on everyone and find everything out) posited against his dogged dependence on his own instinct. This is the position of all those who happen upon other people’s secrets, whether its watching people closely on-line, or catching snippets of conversation, the fragmentary knowledge is imbued with a power derived from prohibition. Despite the twists and turns in narrative (and despite all this subversive intent, The Conversation is a fantastic noir thriller at its surface) we are never sure of the accuracy of image of Harry’s narrative puzzle, and a few times we find out, as he does, that he has been on the wrong track. This is the conceit of the snoop, that they know more than the parties concerned, but this knowledge is powerless because it is deficient and results only in paranoia, not in the power to act.
Many people have written at great length about The Conversation, made by Francis Ford Coppola in between the two Godfathers, because of its homage to Hitchcock, its contemporary views on Paranoia and its deep psychological study of the post modern subject. I’ve only touched on a few point briefly, trying to find something not so exhaustively covered already, but here on the fortieth birthday of The Conversation, it is still as thrilling a film as it was when it was first released. Highly recommended.
(Check out Slavoj Ziezek’s commentary on the toilet scene below – well worth a watch)